Former Maryland Speaker of the House and Kent County political scion Roy Clayton Mitchell, Jr. died June 13, 2019 at his home in Kentmore Park. Clay Mitchell was a son of Kent County through and through. Born and raised on his family farm, he never strayed far from home. The Mitchells were leaders in Kent’s agribusiness economy and residential development throughout the 20th Century. The site of the R.C. Mitchell & Son still sits along the rail line in Kennedyville. It was logical for him to enter Kent County politics.
Mitchell was part of the last generation of that faded halcyon period of Maryland politics when the Eastern Shore still voted for Democrats and their representatives could advance to leadership in the Legislature. By the 1986 Election, he was Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and eyeing the Speakership. The 1986 Democratic Primary was contentious. Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer beat Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs. The outcome ushered in a new generation of statewide leaders who supported Schaefer and drove public policy for the next decade, including Mitchell who was elected Speaker in 1987.
For Kent County and for me, it was fortuitous.
Kent County had a triumvirate of political leaders who had backed Schaefer and delivered access to the Governor: Mitchell, along with the late County Commissioner Wallace D. Miller and Elmer E. Horsey, then-Chestertown Mayor, Schaefer confidant and campaign treasurer of most of his statewide races.
At the time, I was a student at Washington College and had recently been fired as a reporter by then-Kent County News editor Hurtt Derringer to make way for a journalism school graduate. Fortuitously, I bumped into former colleague Joyce Willis, then-Social Editor of the Kent County News, at the old Chestertown Bank, both of us entertaining the prospect of creating a two-newspaper town. We emerged an hour later from a borrowed conference room and The Pilot newspaper was born.
Joyce Willis was the dean of the Kent County press corps to the extent that could exist in a one-paper town. She started at the Kent County News in the 1960s when Bill Usilton, the publisher, ran the Kent County News and Harry Russell, the editor, ran Kent County. The paper had its operations at Cross and Cannon Streets, now the site of the Sultana Center. By 1986, Joyce had over 25 years of reporting under her belt and unfettered access to the local political elite, of whom none were more powerful than Mitchell, Miller and Horsey.
Over the next two years, I took a total immersion course in the art of The Scoop that opened up the fascinating world of Maryland politics to me.
Clay Mitchell was a generous subject. He had an open door policy for the Pilot staff. Mitchell liked to get out front of stories. Dee Cockey, his gatekeeper, would add me to The Speaker’s call back list whenever a local story was brewing so he could come off the rostrum and deal with it. The greatest insight came when invited to Great Oak Landing on Friday nights to hear war stories. These sessions reinforced my impression that Mitchell possessed that rare quality of anticipating the needs of politicians and their constituencies to forge consensus without bloodletting amidst the swirl of angst, anxiety and egomania of the legislative session. Calm and controlled, if the man had a temper he buried it deep: never angry or mean words, but great insight on political motivations.
Mitchell left politics early enough to enjoy his retirement. He and his wife Teel, a Belle of Kent County, were positive, creative people who enjoyed life, good humor and independence. That life view rubbed off on their sons, Clay, Chris, and Mike, and the next generation of Mitchells.
Rest in peace, Clay. Your time here was well spent. Your legacy is ensured.
Steve Meehan is an attorney practicing in Chestertown, Maryland. He was publisher and editor of The Pilot Newspaper, Chestertown, Maryland, from 1986-1988.